M&R Ch 7: Linguistic form and relevance

This is my colleague Chris Cocchiarella’s summary of the seventh chapter of Wilson and Sperber’s (2012) Meaning and Relevance. We previously posted Chris’s summary of the book’s preface, an intro to some of the terms and concepts of Relevance Theory, and a his summary of the introductory Chapter 1. All the other chapters  before the present one have also received summaries. (Click on the “Relevance Theory” tag link on any of these, and you’ll get the whole list.) I also posted a claim that Relevance Theory matters to rhetoric and TC. With the chapter, the job of writing summaries passes to me; wish me luck!

Chapter 7 begins Part II of Meaning And Relevance by going into more detail about explicit and implicit communication.  Recall that Relevance Theory (RT) says communication includes both explicit knowledge, or explicature, and implicit knowledge, or implicature.  Communication occurs not only by decoding words from explicatures but also by inferring intentions about implicatures.  In Chapter 7, Sperber and Wilson look more closely at the relation between explicature and implicature, or decoding and inference.  Their purpose is to distinguish RT from earlier pragmatic approaches such as Speech Act Theory, which explained communication as a process of decoding propositions (truth conditions that make references) to perform speech acts (illocutionary forces like moods).[1]  While S&W acknowledge that propositions and speech acts play a role in communication (i.e., they communicate explicatures), RT paints a larger picture by including how explicatures interact with implicatures.

Like Speech Act Theory, RT acknowledges the role of linguistic codes (explicit words).  Linguistic codes can entail truth conditions (e.g., references) and illocutionary forces (e.g., moods).  But RT also acknowledges the role of cognitive representations (implicit concepts).  Cognitive representations include both constructing concepts (i.e., conceptual knowledge) and problem solving with those concepts (i.e., procedural knowledge).  S&W point out,

Linguistic decoding provides input to the inferential phase of comprehension; inferential comprehension involves the construction and manipulation of conceptual representations. An utterance can thus be expected to encode two basic types of information: representational and computational, or conceptual and procedural (Wilson and Sperber, 2012, 149-150).

Hence, RT sees a cognitive side and a linguistic side to communication.  The linguistic side includes truth conditions (propositions that make references) and non-truth conditions (illocutionary speech acts like mood expression).[2]  The cognitive side involves conceptual knowledge (constructing concepts/representations) and procedural knowledge (computing with or manipulating concepts/representations).  However, these two sides of communication “cross-cut each other,” insist S&W: “some truth-conditional constructions encode concepts, others encode procedures; some non-truth-conditional constructions encode procedures, others encode concepts” (150).  In other words, there is overlap between the linguistic side and the cognitive side of communication.

This overlap may seem complicated, so let’s consider each of the conditions.

There are truth-conditional and non-truth-conditional words that encode concepts, which evoke “encyclopedic schema,” or concepts that help hearers interpret words (155).  In other words, concepts evoke ways to interpret words.

  • ‘Content’ words such as manner adverbials (e.g., “he speaks frankly”) are truth-conditional (they encode concepts that constitute prepositional content) and conceptual (they contribute to truth conditions).
  • Sentence adverbials, including illocutionary adverbials (e.g., “frankly, I don’t like dinner”), are non-truth-conditional (they encode concepts) and conceptual (they constitute weak or higher-level explicatures).

There are other truth-conditional and non-truth-conditional words that encode procedures, which are “constraints on the inferential phase of communication.”   These procedures indicate “the type of inferential process that they hearer is expected to go through” and create “relevance by guiding the hearer towards the intended contextual effects, thus reducing the overall effort required” (158).

  • Personal pronouns such as ‘I’ or ‘you’ are both truth-conditional and procedural (they encode procedural constraints on explicatures)—they guide a hearer to find the intended reference of the proposition.
  • Illocutionary-force indicators such as mood are both non-truth-conditional and procedural (they encode procedural constraints on higher-level explicatures).  Similarly, discourse connective such as ‘so’ or ‘after all’ are both non-truth-conditional and procedural (they encode procedural constraints on implicatures)—they guide a hearer to find the intended context.

These overlaps between linguistic and cognitive sides of communication, or explicit codes and implicit concepts, can look complicated at first, so I created a table to illustrate these interacting sides of communication according to RT.

CC chap 7 image

When the linguistic side of communication (explicature or explicit decoding) interacts with the cognitive side of communication (implicature or implicit inferences), decoding and inference work together—this interaction between linguistic decoding and cognitive inference is what S&W earlier called “mutual adjustment” (see Chapter 1 summary).  In Chapter 7, they basically restate this process as follows:

Logical forms [i.e., explicit words] are ‘developed’ [i.e., decoded] into explicatures by inferential enrichments.  Every explicature, then, is recovered by a combination of decoding and inference, and the greater the element of decoding, the more explicit is will be (160).

Hence, RT is not just a linguistic but also a “cognitive approach” (168).

In conclusion, Chapter 7 is probably one of the more technical and theoretically dense chapters in Meaning and Relevance, but it has practical applications.  For example, I would like to suggest that it applies to international or intercultural communication.  Professionals in international or intercultural communication commonly talk about ‘higher-context cultures’ and ‘lower-context cultures.’  Communicators in a higher-context culture (e.g., Japan) require more background knowledge about the culture to make inferences (e.g., about idioms, implications, etc.), which are are usually not explicitly stated.  Communicators in a lower-context culture (e.g., northeast USA) tend to use more explicit statements in comparison.  These ‘higher-context’ and ‘lower-context’ forms of communication correspond to S&W’s implicature and explicature.  So for practitioners of international or intercultural communication, ‘higher-context’ and ‘lower-context’ cultures can be studied scientifically as implicit and explicit communication.


Searle, John R.  (1969).  Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wilson, Deirdre and Sperber, Dan.  (2012).  Meaning and Relevance.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[1] In particular, S&W refer to Speech Act Theory—e.g., John Searle’s Speech Acts (1969).

[2] S&W call a sentence construction “truth conditional if and only if it contributes to the proposition expressed” (153).

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